Wednesday, May 27, 1998

Pop-up knowledge

The latest Knopf book on the art and history of building is a multileveled adventure.

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 1998 at 12:00 AM

Don't you hate book reviews that are just a thinly disguised excuse for the reviewer to talk about something other than the subject at hand (which is reviewing a book, of course) -- reviews that turn into an occasion for exorcising some private crank of the writer? For example, a piece that instead of discussing the beautiful new Architecture Pack by Ron van der Meer and Deyan Sudjic (from the same publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, that brought out The Art Pack and The Music Pack) -- instead of talking about that book, a review that wanders off into a private rant about urbanism and publishing and Titanic?

Not that there isn't plenty to be said about those topics, goodness knows, what with the mess Americans have made of our cities, and the junk that passes for "architecture" these days, and the crummy condition that publishing is in. Like, for instance, the fact that big conglomerates have eaten most of the quality publishers, so it's virtually impossible for a "small" book to make it. Just like it's impossible for a "small" film to get funded, least of all now that King-of-the-World James Cameron has imposed his Las Vegas style of entertainment on a whole industry, the intelligence driving his aesthetic being to moviemaking what casino architecture is to urbanism, which is to say squalid, petty and wrong. But instead of anybody asking relevant questions, they're all narcotized by the phony "community" of the Internet into thinking they're participating in some new form of global literacy when all they're doing is just watching TV.

Don't get me started because I could say plenty. But this is hardly the place. Not that the issues aren't relevant. I mean, just look at The Architecture Pack and you'll see how not like the Internet it is. This book -- more an artifact really -- is distinctly about doing real things, interacting with the text, not just sitting on your butt with your joystick in your hand. The pop-up architecture is meticulous in its craftsmanship and irresistible (which is the point of each of the "packs" executed thus far). The seven sections of the book each open up to a little desktop display measuring 11 by 22 inches. In the center of each is a main pop-up event (a 14th-century timber frame house, Andrea Palladio's Villa Rotonda, Chartres Cathedral, the Sydney, Australia, Opera House, Kinkakuji Temple in Japan, the John Hancock Center in Chicago, almost a foot high, and the Getty Center in Los Angeles). At the end, there's a freestanding model to put together of Gerrit Rietveld's Schroeder House. Each piece unfolds miraculously, letting you see into the architecture literally, with side panels and overlays, smaller pop-ups, such as Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, and transparencies to illustrate salient features of the building. There are even 3-D animations.

You can walk around these buildings, learn from them, even have them explained to you by Sudjic, who narrates the accompanying cassette recording. "Ever since mankind learned the art of putting one brick on top of another," he advises, "... there has been a debate between those who see building as a practical process and those who are more interested in the cultural aspects of an aesthetic pursuit." And isn't that where we are today? Right here in Detroit? Stuck between building and architecture? With an array of powerful forces assuring us that the present redesign of the city is just a matter of building, with no more "cultural" relevance or reason to get excited than if it was a new sewer or freeway off-ramp we were talking about (not that these things oughtn't be "aesthetic" too).

So why doesn't the populace just say no to that kind of egregious pettifogging? Why don't we, for example, demand a noble public architecture to match the aspirations of this "renaissance city" that is trying once more to buy for itself a public face commensurate with the heroism, genius and sacrifice that have created the life we all live here collectively (if not precisely together)? Why not demand that the things built in our name stand for what is best in us, noblest, most enduringly humane? That's what people and cities once paid architects to do, and what some still do, as The Architecture Pack makes clear, just as it also makes clear the reason why we are often willing to settle for what is cheap, vulgar and opportunistic.

The reason is the general level of understanding the public is willing and/or able to bring to architecture, which, let's face it, like any other specialized profession, is a complicated matter. But not so complicated that we can't understand it if we want to, and that's where this excellent book comes in. The Pack begins at the beginning, with the Egyptians, but it isn't merely a chronology. Instead, each of the seven sections develops a conceptual (mostly Western) base for inviting a reader-participant to care about the complexities that define architecture, as organized by the book's main headings: Architects and Builders, Classical Influence, Structure and Form, New Materials New Shapes, Architecture as Art, The Changing City, Process. There are also two handy little booklets, a "Timeline of Architects and Architecture" and a "Glossary" of architects and terms.

As it turns out, the built environment is only as good as the attention we citizens are capable of paying to it. And most of the time, our attention level is neither very great nor very intelligent. Come to think of it, it's a wonder things aren't in an even bigger mess, given how the majority of average Americans can't be bothered to vote in local elections, much less care about what the politicians decide to build. And that is a shameful dereliction on all our parts.

"The effort to reclaim the city is the struggle of democracy itself," the architect Michael Sorkin writes in his collection, Variations on a Theme Park. That he is right is obvious; that most of us are little prepared to do anything about it is the problem. Things needn't remain as they are, however, which is the hopeful part of the story, and the reason for such intelligent projects as The Architecture Pack, as opposed to the Titanic lies and Web-sited inanity that pass for "culture" these days. But don't get me started.

E-mail comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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